John Ray, Jr., Ph.D. informs us that Humbert Humbert, author of the following manuscript, titled "Lolita, or the Confession of a White Widowed Male," died in jail of coronary thrombosis on Nov. 16, 1952, just before his trial was to start. Ray has changed a few minor details to protect the identity of the living. He reveals the fate of several personages, such as Vivian Darkbloom. He discusses the psychology surrounding Humbert's crime, and how Humbert's beautiful passion for Lolita can entrance us despite its moral abhorrence.
The foreword introduces a number of themes Nabokov deploys throughout the remainder of the book. Immediately noticeable are the intriguing names he uses. "Humbert" recalls the Latin "umbra," or "shade." Indeed, the foreword hints at the many dark shadows in Humbert's tale. Moreover, "Humbert" is close to the Spanish "hombre" for man, and "ombre" is also a 17th-century European card game.
Humbert's association with a game is important, because Nabokov plays countless games with language. Humbert Humbert, of course, has a double name. John Ray, Jr. also has a double name of sorts (his initials are similar to his junior status). Nabokov parodies the German-influenced Doppelgänger tale throughout Lolita. The Doppelgänger tale pits one character against some kind of doubled version of himself; Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde is the premier example (and one greatly admired by Nabokov, who otherwise had great disdain for the Doppelgänger, calling it a "frightful bore"). One of his gripes is that the Doppelgänger makes moral divisions between the doubled pair absolutely clear; already we are subversively informed that the hero of Lolita is an immoral man.
Nabokov also teases the reader with word puzzles that are unnecessary to understand the book, but can add to one's enjoyment. Vivian Darkbloom, for instance, is an anagram of Vladimir Nabokov (which then marks another instance of a double, since his female counterpart is somewhere in the novel). Coronary thrombosis, the cause of Humbert's death, is highfalutin language for a "broken heart." While this may be humorous, it obscures the fact that Lolita is a book about sorrowful loss, something the tricky language often makes us forget.
The language also makes us forget Humbert's "diabolical cunning," as Ray puts it. Humbert's exquisite, charming, and ingenious turns of phrase get readers on his side while diverting us from the horror of his actions.
Another subject Nabokov parodies throughout the novel is psychology, especially Freudian psychology. Ray cites psychological statistics, attests that none of this would have happened had Humbert gone to a "competent psychologist," and maintains that the book will become a psychological "classic." Nabokov never believed Freud had any sound basis for his theories, and he loves mocking psychology's methodologies.
Humbert narrates and reveals that Lolita had a "precursor," when he was younger, without whom he might not have loved Lolita. He calls himself a "murderer," and asks the "Ladies and gentleman of the jury" to look at his case.
Humbert implies that there was some psychological root for his love for Lolita in his childhood, suggesting Nabokov will soon parody this conventional explanation.
The many names for Lolita - Dolores, Lo, Dolly, etc. - remind us that though she is different people in different situations, we always see her as Humbert sees her "in my arms": as "Lolita."
Part of the reason for this is that Humbert is the consummate cajoling lawyer who makes us see the world through his highly subjective eyes. Accordingly, he refers to his readers as the "jury," acknowledging that we are making a moral judgment on him. It now becomes clear that the crime for which Humbert was imprisoned was murder, although the reader may have assumed from the foreword that it was pedophilia.
Humbert fills in his background. He was born in 1910 in Paris and has a mixed European background. His mother died when he was young. He alludes to his "little Annabel," his first real sexual experience.
Humbert is European, and his background will play a more important role once he enters America.
The famously parenthesized description of his mother's death - "(picnic, lightning)" - is humorous, but it also introduces the theme of coincidence and fate Nabokov will examine throughout the novel. Complementing the freak accident is his aunt's prophesy that she would die soon after Humbert's sixteenth birthday; perhaps chance and fate are one and the same.
Humbert describes his childhood memory of Annabel Leigh, the daughter of some of his aunt's friends. She was a few months younger than he was, and they were madly in love one summer. They would explore each other's body on the beach. On their last day together, they were interrupted before consummation. Annabel died four months later of typhus.
Annabel Leigh is an allusion to Edgar Allen Poe's poem "Annabel Lee," an ode to the speaker's young lover who has since died (it is generally credited to represent Poe's young wife, Virginia Clemm). Humbert frequently references the poem, changing several notable lines around and using certain words (such as "seraphs") to suit his designs.
Humbert's description of memory marks a contrast between recreating an image through the "laboratory of your mind" with language, and finding the "objective, absolutely optical replica" by closing one's eyes, which is the way he sees Lolita. He wants the reader to see Lolita in this manner, as well. Though he has only the laboratory of language at his disposal, Humbert uses it to remarkable effect in getting us inside his eyes.
Humbert provides the conventional exposition for his condition - pedophilia, although to label it simply that discredits Humbert's depth of desire - even including a traumatic moment of coitus interruptus and a more traumatic event of death. Though he genuinely seems to believe that Annabel is the cause for his love of Lolita, Nabokov mocks the reader's need for this psychological motivation.
Humbert questions whether Annabel provoked his condition, or whether it was simply early evidence of his condition. Her death stalled his romantic desires for a long time. He describes their first failed attempt at love-making, interrupted by a nearby sound and her parents' presence. Twenty-four years later, he was able to break free from her spell by "incarnating her in another."
Humbert believes fate somehow connects Annabel with Lolita, and the numerous links between Annabel and Lolita indicate this is the case. For instance, the sunglasses at their beach tryst will recur when Humbert first sees Lolita; the appearance of Annabel's mother during their garden tryst will bear relevance to Lolita's mother; and even Humbert's phrase "haze of stars" suggests some cosmic connection to Lolita, whose last name is Haze.
Humbert also uses the words "spell" and "incarnating" when describing Annabel's hold over him and his replacement of her with Lolita. These words have magical subtexts, and Nabokov believed that all stories should be, on some level, fairy tales. He uses many other strategies throughout the novel to turn Lolita into a sexualized, obsessive fairy tale of sorts. Like the fairy tale storyteller, Humbert is interested in enchanting the reader, partially to obscure the demonic impulses behind his magical language.
Humbert enjoyed the company of prostitutes as a college student. He received a degree in English literature and taught English. He describes the creature he calls a "nymphet," which is a girl between nine and fourteen who possesses some "fantastic power" unbeknownst to most her age. He maintains that there must be a gap of many years between the man and the nymphet for him to come under her spell.
While Humbert maintained relationships with loathsome adult women, he lusted after unattainable nymphets. He provides historical and cultural examples of relationships between men and young girls, and brings up cases in which he had close contact with nymphets, though he never did anything about it.
"Nymphet," a word Nabokov coined which is now part of the English language, resounds with fairy tale undertones, since it adapts the word "nymph," divinities from classical mythology usually represented as maidens in natural settings. (It makes sense, then, that Humbert's description of the nymphets in this chapter takes place in the park.) Nymph is also a term for the larva of an insect with incomplete metamorphosis, and the young nymphet can be seen in this larval, immature term. The larval connection will also become important, as Nabokov was a renowned lepidopterist (butterfly specialist).
Humbert gives us a closer look at his unremitting, ecstatic desire. Lolita is concerned with obsessive, unquenchable desires, sex being one of the major ones, and Humbert's gorgeous language takes desire to new places.
Humbert describes his sexual encounters with a French nymphet prostitute named Monique. However, she soon lost her nymphet qualities, and he stopped seeing her. He sought out another child prostitute, but she turned out not to be a nymphet at all, and he was coerced into paying anyway.
Monique's rapid change from a nymphet into a woman suggests the metamorphosis Humbert tries to make his nymphets resists. "Never grow up," he pleaded in Chapter 5, but the maturation of nymphets is out of Humbert's control. This is perhaps the one thing he cannot alter; otherwise, he is adept at getting what he wants and satisfying his carnal desires.
Monique's coarseness foreshadows Lolita's crudeness; though Humbert sees this vulgarity in Monique, he is unable to see through it with Lolita.
Soon after his encounter with the other prostitute, Humbert married, hoping it would cure him of his illicit desires. A small inheritance and his exceptional looks made the acquisition of Polish doctor's daughter very easy. However, Humbert says his choice was disastrous, which shows how "stupid" he is in "matters of sex."
Humbert's good looks not only make the events of Lolita plausible, they also certify that his attraction to young girls is not based on greater societal rejection. Much like Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment (who is also noted as being handsome), Humbert is fully accepted by society; he is the one who rejects it. Still, he makes foolish sexual choices, as he admits.
Valeria, Humbert's wife, initially reminded him of a little girl. The sheen quickly wore off after their wedding night, and she turned into a "brainless" woman. In 1939, four years into their marriage, she informed him she was seeing another man, a Russian taxi driver to whom she introduced Humbert. Humbert, deeply hurt, suggested she live with the man, and contemplated killing or hurting Valeria when they were alone. He never got the chance, since the Russian stayed by her side. He later learned Valeria died during childbirth in 1945.
Humbert switches topics and relates finding a startling coincidence in a prison library 1946 copy of Who's Who in the Limelight, a compendium of theatrical credits. He transcribes a page which includes the actress Dolores Quine, and marvels at how his love's first name still moves him. He also remarks "Guilty of killing Quilty," referring to the entry on the same page for children's (male) playwright Clare Quilty.
Humbert suggests that his murder victim was Clare Quilty, and many of the facts in Quilty's entry support a connection between the men (he has authored plays called The Little Nymph and Fatherly Love, and has collaborated with Vivian Darkbloom). Moreover, Humbert jokes that Lolita appeared in the play The Murdered Playwright.
Humbert accidentally transcribes that Quilty "Has disappeared since" in a number of plays. Lolita has a number of random disappearances and deaths (such as Humbert's mother's death), and they indicate the capriciousness of fate.
Humbert declares that he has "only words to play with," admitting he uses language as a toy, just as he manipulates people. However, he reveals his vulnerability here, as he does very occasionally throughout his narrative: in prison, Humbert has nothing else in the world at his disposal but language.
Humbert divorced Valeria and immigrated to New York, where he took a job creating and editing perfume ads. In the meantime, he completed his comparative history of French literature for English-speaking students. He had two nervous breakdowns and sanitarium stays. He landed a job on an arctic Canadian expedition recording the "'psychic reactions'" of himself and the group to the environment. He eventually wrote up and published a fictionalized report. Upon returning to civilization, Humbert had his second breakdown and found delight in toying with psychiatrists.
Nabokov continues to mock society's reverence for psychology. Humbert's arctic report fools scientists, and his false leads for the psychiatrists show how little they understand real psychology (they do not, after all, uncover his true perversion).
Humbert's history of madness, however, is crucial. We already know that he nearly went insane with rage when Valeria cheated on him; if the infidelity of a loathed wife had such an effect on him, we can only imagine what levels of insanity he has reached with Lolita. Humbert has previously called himself a "madman," and Nabokov shows how desire and madness often go hand in hand.
After leaving the mental institution, Humbert searches the New England countryside for a place to do his scholarly work. He gets a lead for an empty room in the town of Ramsdale. At the middle-class house, Charlotte Haze, a somewhat stupid widow who repulses Humbert, leads him around. He is reluctant to take it, aware that Haze will try to seduce him, until she leads him into the garden and he sees Lolita. She reminds him exactly of Annabel, and he takes the room.
Though Nabokov denied that Lolita was about Old Europe in conflict with Young America (specifically in the relationship of Humbert and Lolita), Haze undeniably exemplifies the middle-class American who strives, unsuccessfully, for a refined European sensibility. Her generic artwork, garish clothes, and pathetic attempts at French reinforce her bourgeois status, and Humbert correctly predicts that she will fall in love with him - not only for his physical appearance, but his European air of elegance and class.
A few throwaway notes here will assume importance later. 342, the number of Haze's house, will become a motif throughout the novel. Humbert's car nearly runs over a dog, and a dog will play an important role in a later accident. These coincidences suggest that they are not, in fact, coincidences or accidents, but checkpoints in fate.
Humbert believes, too, that Annabel and Lolita are connected by fate, and that everything in between has been a random series of events. Even the sunglasses she wears are reminders of the sunglasses in the cave where Humbert and Annabel almost made love.